Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN)

By now, most industrial network operators have heard about Time-Sensitive Networking, or TSN. We get a lot of questions from customers about its status and how it can benefit their operation. As someone who works as an editor for several TSN standards within the IEEE—the standards organization defining Ethernet—I’d like to provide a quick summary of what this technology is, where it stands and what you can consider doing right now to benefit from it.

What is TSN and What Can it Do For You?

Most clearly put, TSN is the ongoing evolution of Ethernet, something most everyone is familiar with: an incredibly valuable, proven technology that is helping to fully enable many of today’s most powerful network capabilities—right up to and including the extraordinary data-driven capabilities of the Industrial Internet of Things. A colleague of mine once said “a standard that is not continually evolving is a dead standard.” The emergence of TSN is one example that shows how Ethernet is continually evolving and is providing us with its most powerful evolutionary leaps yet.

Time-Sensitive Networking ImageTSN allows Ethernet to support the requirements of real-time traffic, ensuring that the most mission-critical communications get to where they are going in time. This adds a level of determinism to Ethernet that has not previously been provided by other IEEE Ethernet standards. So, think this through with me. TSN allows critical traffic, such as control data or safety information, to exist on a single network right alongside less important traffic without any concern that a critical instruction will get delayed by something like a video feed or file download. That means operators can now safely merge separate critical and standard networks and reclaim significant savings in cost and resources. Furthermore, on the production line, instructions on the fastest, most time-dependent processes can be given priority, so operators can confidently boost the speed of production without fear that instructions will lag and end up jamming up the line.

You Can Benefit from TSN Today

Operators often ask if TSN is “complete” yet. This question always puts me in a tough spot! Of course, TSN is not “complete” yet—it is continually evolving and adapting to new requirements from different markets, just like Ethernet itself. At the same time, TSN is ready for evaluation and testing in operations of all kinds, as well as use in productive environments. Many TSN-ready switches, software tools and related devices are available from quality vendors including Belden/Hirschmann. TSN is based on standardized IEEE 802 Ethernet technology, so it can be seamlessly integrated into existing industrial Ethernet infrastructures to provide enhanced functionality almost instantly. In fact, we are working with many organizations around the world who are eager to tap into the real-time capabilities of TSN as soon as possible, and in their tests they are finding the benefits of TSN very impressive indeed.

The Latest Developments in Standardization

At the IEEE, representatives from many organizations are working together to further advance the standards, adding stability, improving performance and making TSN even more powerful and useful for industrial operators. It is an ongoing activity and as requirements for improvements to the standards are discovered, new projects are started to further enhance the mechanisms provided. This helps to make TSN ever more practical and user friendly. For example, the TSN standards initially described three management models. Feedback from testbeds and users evaluating TSN showed that further improvements for these models are required to allow a comprehensive usage for managing TSN networks. This has led to new work within the IEEE 802.1 group to close the gaps identified by the users.

Time-Sensitive Networking

It is important to realize that TSN is not one “technology” or standard but more like a broad set of capabilities—a toolbox that provides different tools for different requirements, applications and needs. For example, one part provides time synchronization, another allows scheduled traffic, yet another provides the means for redundancy and so on. Some of them are relying on each other while others can be used completely independently. While the flexibility this approach offers to users is a big benefit, it also raised a question that needs to be answered: what is the common combination of standard mechanisms for the industrial user to pick in order to provide interoperability between industrial TSN devices?

This question has led to an important recent development. IEEE has started a joint project with the IEC to develop a profile document offering a subset of the standards that is tailored to the needs of industrial users. Industrial TSN suppliers are expected to follow this profile in developing specialized products for the industrial market. The work on this profile is ongoing in the IEEE 802.1 working group as project “IEC/IEEE 60802 TSN Profile for Industrial Automation” and aims to be a “dual logo” standard provided by the two organizations. It’s not an everyday occurrence that these two groups collaborate like this. This and the broad participation of experts from both groups underscores the importance of the endeavor, and as a participant in both the IEEE and the IEC, I find it extremely exciting. It’s definitely a partnership that will be very valuable for all participants.

Is Time Sensitive Networking Timely For You?

As noted, many early adopters are moving forward to investigate this new evolution of Ethernet and are starting to capture its benefits as fine-tuning on the standards continues. Should you be one of them? Belden/Hirschmann can help you make an informed decision. We invite you to discuss the pros and cons and, if applicable, take a look at the latest Belden/Hirschmann TSN products like RSPE, OCTOPUS and BOBCAT as well as our Industrial HiVision network management software which makes TSN configuration on multiple devices faster and easier. For example, it allows operators to simultaneously configure TSN schedules on all devices that are involved in TSN communication at once instead of setting parameters such as time synchronization and scheduling individually on all devices. Obviously, we’re big believers in TSN and adding TSN capabilities to more and more devices. We have no doubt that this technology will be a “must have” feature in industrial automation in the very near future. Should you be getting a jump on it now in order to get a jump on the competition? Contact us any time and we can help you decide.

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